Canon EF 35mm f/2. In my previous reviews, I talked about a few specific focal lengths and their respective purposes. Lens with a full-frame focal length of 50mm is considered as the ‘STANDARD’ lens for any photographer. Then the 85mm is for portraits because it is focal length to compress the distance between your subject and background, and great for isolating them by blurring the unfocused.
Of course, as the number suggests, 35mm is a wider focal length. For decades, the 35mm lenses are the ‘standard’ tools for street photographers. It’s a tool about capturing the ‘happening’. Many street photographers had been using it since the days when Leica revolutionised with 135 format with its rangefinder cameras. Even today, many still use 35mm as their street ‘tool’. Another important reason is that almost all 35mm lenses are tiny, with the exception of the fastest ones like the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM and the Leica 35mm Summilux ASPH with Floating Elements. Its small size enables you to shoot discretely. You can also carry this set up all day without breaking your neck. In fact, I always shoot with my Leica M6 with the 35mm Summilux all day without a rest. I also used the same setup for my Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon EF 35mm f/2 in Hong Kong this summer too. It was effortless.
So why this lens?
Over the years of photography evolution, the 35mm focal length has somehow gone out of fashion for many photographer, their new standard of wide angle lens is now a more-prone-to-distortion 24mm. Ultra wide such as 16mm is considered as a specialist lens. Ok, so why would you bother of using a 35mm lens these days? The answer is simple: I want my photo to look natural.
To my eyes, pictures that are taken from a 35mm lens gives me the most natural look and feel. Any wider will starting to have excessive distortion which, unless you are doing something creative, doesn’t shoot my taste of photography. Or unless I am struggling with space, I will not use anything wider. Many zoom lenses now start their focal length at 24mm because that’s what people are now accustomed to. Even though 50mm is normal to human eyes but I love the 35mm’s ability to capture stories!
Canon’s prime 35mm lenses offerings have been around for a while. There are only two models in the line up: Canon EF 35mm f/2 and the more extreme (price wise) Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 L USM. I love the f/2 version, it’s super light, sharp and cost only a fraction to the ‘L’ sibling. I love smaller lenses for street and the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM has become my new favourite for street shoot (see my review here).
Even though the Canon 35mm f/2 lens is inexpensive, Canon’s old tradition of building good lenses shows here. Like all the EF lenses built in the 90’s, they all have distance scale, metal mounts and good use of plastics and glass elements. The only thing that you can tell it’s a cheaper lens is probably the rather noise focusing motor. It certainly feels mechanical and weighty but not heavy.
The focusing ring may not be as silky smooth as the latest STM lenses or the ‘L’ professional range but it does the job well when focusing with two fingers. The noisy focus motor may be an issue when shooting in a quiet church because it does ‘grind’ a bit. I am not sure whether it’s due to the age of my lens or just that I am now used to the silence from USM and STM motors.
But my original 35mm f/2 lens is not a bad lens, it’s only that the optics were designed back in the 90’s and its performance is starting to date against some modern offers. Because it’s a 35mm lens, I still favour this focal length then the 40mm.
Using it in practice, good and bad
Despite the ultra noisy focusing motor, the Canon EF 35mm f/2 is a joy to use. It’s small, light and discrete. It has been with me on various street shoots and I am always fond with the look from the photos.
There’s a certain look to this older f/2 lens. It may not be as sharp as its ‘L’ sibling but it’s by far a much sharper lens than any kit lenses around. With the fast f/2 aperture, combine with its light weight, you can virtually shoot at night without using a tripod, providing you use a wall to stablise yourself.
Shooting wide open also brings its downside. There’s a light fall off of about a stop at the corners. It’s also softer at the edges too. Stopping down to around f/4 helps and optimum at around f/5.6 ~ 6.3. Because it’s an old lens that belongs to the film era, the more modern 40mm STM does a much better job at shooting wide open, even though it’s a tad slower at f/2.8.
I have no problem using it for still photography but for video, unless you are presetting the distance and focus, it may be wise not to use it for change focus because of the grindy focusing ring. It is just not as smooth as the USM or STM lenses.
So, as a photographer, I love the 35mm f/2. It may be old but it still holds up as a great street lens. The price will not break you bank and the construction will certainly last another few decades, providing you don’t bang or drop it. I have mine for over 15 years now and it still works like a charm. Ok, it may not be as sharp or quiet as the new brother Canon EF 40mm STM but there’s a reason why Canon keeps it in the line up. It’s still a great lens, and a handy one. For any photography students, the perfect set up will be this little gem plus the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. Even for pros, it’s useful at wedding, street and documentary. It just may be a little soft for landscape use these days. Old but not retired yet. There are still plenty of followers, like me.
All equipment mentioned in this review can be purchased from Amazon below.